Sunday, November 02, 2014

Santa Anita Fatigue

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 1, 2014---I have written these words ever since Breeders’ Cup II back in 1985: “As a racing event, the Breeders’ Cup never fails to fire.”

Or, a variation on that theme: “The Kentucky Derby is my favorite race but the Breeders’ Cup is my favorite event, racing’s best hoof forward.”

Or maybe it’s because the concept of Breeders’ Cup offers the greatest blend of pomp, circumstance, and gambling known to man.

For most of us, in any case, it’s what makes Thoroughbred racing “the greatest game played outdoors.” To wit:

Where else over consecutive days can be seen performances such as Lady Eli’s, or Bobby’s Kitten’s, or Texas Red’s; horsemanship like those displayed by Chad Brown, or Wesley Ward, or Steve Asmussen?

Or the athleticism and decision making skills at 40 miles per hour as those displayed by Rosie Napravnik or Javier Castellano or Frankie Dettori?

So, then, what’s leaving me so unsatisfied post event?

Was it small betting losses incurred over two days; the Turf trifecta, a value play on Bobby’s Kitten and win savers on Work All Week and Karakonite the only bets that provided a dufresnian escape from parimutuel incarceration?

No, it wasn‘t the betting; I can remember losing once or twice before. And recall, please, that this is a game in which being wrong two out of every three chances makes you a certifiable genius.

Certifiable, anyway.

And it wasn’t the atmospherics under which the event was staged; it was sloppy as hell in New York Saturday. In SoCal, the badly needed rain fell conveniently fell between programs at night.

And what better background for the beautiful spectacle of Thoroughbred racing than the San Gabriels, live or in living HD?

It can be only one thing that makes me feel this way: It’s West Coast hyperbole and it leads to Santa Anita Fatigue.

Let’s face it: the Great Race Place is and always has been the Great Speed Place. As the only source of major league racing in Southern California, it’s what makes the absence of Hollywood Park so glaring.

Even on Cushion Track, the races there took on an added dimension, a break from the peddle-to-the-mettle speed show across town.

And what about the close-cropped seven-furlong turf course for 14-horse fields?

That layout places too much of a premium on the luck of the post draw, and the luck of the trip. All entrants deserve a relatively level field of play from the moment the latch is sprung.

How ironic was it that the mile and a quarter chute, which provides the fairest way to get to Santa Anita’s main track first turn, was the backdrop for a start that eliminated virtually any chance the Classic favorite had of keeping his undefeated record in tact?

And that’s from one handicapper who picked California Chrome to win the race.

Under the conditions, Shared Belief’s fourth-place finish might have been one of the best the Classic has ever seen. And, in that context, how unsatisfying was the eventual order of finish?

Taking nothing away from Bayern; America’s fastest three-year, it helps when conditions favor your style.

Yes, he used his best weapon to dominate the Woody Stephens and Pennsylvania Derby. But the speedy two-turn confines of Monmouth Park and Santa Anita was a big part of his Grade 1 success this year.

Ironically, it was a season in which Bayern came from behind to win a three year old championship.

Next year there will be some relief from West Coast fatigue when the traveling road show--remember when there really was some semblance of a Breeders’ Cup rotation?--will head to Keeneland, where its appearance is long overdo.

(Please, no talk of logistics on this; it’s irrelevant to the staging of the event itself).

But in 2016 it’s back to Santa Anita before Del Mar gets its first opportunity to host the event? What’s up with that, anyway?

In my view, the best venue to stage the event on a quasi-permanent basis would be Churchill Downs, a neutral court.

(Please, no talk of politics in a racing context; irrelevant to the staging of the event).

When properly maintained, the fast-drying Churchill Downs dirt track gives all horses and all styles a chance, a surface over which most horses will act. It’s not New York; it’s not California; it’s in the middle in virtually every way.

While I’m dreaming out loud, of course; why not two venues concurrently? Why not Churchill’s dirt and Belmont Park’s turf?

We’re purposefully being fanciful here. No place is perfect; no surface completely free of bias: It’s horse racing, where luck always plays a disproportionate role.

But that’s what makes the striving for perfection so important. Either that, or stage it as John Gaines envisioned and give the event to every big market capable of hosting international racing. Spread the luck around.

But enough of the new boss meet the old boss. It’s at once happy and sad that Breeders’ Cup is over until 2015, that the NTRA Horse of the Year voting deadline is Monday and that real life midterm elections is Tuesday.

Isn’t it funny, and not in a ha-ha sort of way, how politics and ratings greed just seems to ruin everything?

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, October 27, 2014

On Breeders’ Cup Eve, Horseplayers Continue Their Advocacy

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 26, 2014---Set against a backdrop of horsemen signing entry cards for a run in Breeders’ Cup XXXI beginning Friday, close to 500 stakeholders have signed a petition asking that security cameras be installed in all barns on the Santa Anita backstretch.

After being unable to get any satisfaction with that state’s alphabet groups, most significantly the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the TOc, grassroots horseplayer activists in California took matters into their own hands.

It may be too late for this year's Breeders’ Cup but not so for the prime winter meet the day after Christmas. If all tracks don’t take reasonable measure to shore up their security, no executive ever should be allowed to use the word transparency again.

Not onsite for the Breeders’ Cup this year, I’m not privy to the current politics of the situation but the issue is simple and universal enough. It’s all about the level playing field, about customer’s betting money, the coin of the realm that gives lifeblood to this thing of ours.

As a rule, it’s difficult to spur horseplayers into action, but since the advent of the Horseplayers Association of North America and activists such as Andy Asaro, who continues to act as Prodder-in-Chief to hundreds of industry stakeholders daily, horseplayers finally are playing a role: See Santa Anita in 2012; see Churchill Downs in 2013.

Thanks to these volunteers, the voice of horseplayers has created within the betting community a spirit of cooperation for the health of the game, one that offers a front that’s more united than the sum of all of industry alphabet groups combined.

Of course, state houses everywhere in which racing is conducted make racing’s uniformity process nearly impossible--only the feds can bring about true uniformity--but states don’t want to lose control of their power bases and lose a place that conveniently serves as a patronage dump for the well connected jobless.

State control is one of the reasons why many horsemen at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania are currently waiting to be paid purse and claim money from July, since requests for funds due from the fruits of their investment and labor first have to be processed and then approved before checks can even be cut.

Why? Aren’t usurious takeout rates mandated by Pennsylvania paid to the state by the tracks almost immediately? The situation there is disgraceful, but I digress.

Among the almost 500 petition signatures, there are precious few from industry types, as if security and transparency were not in the interests of all. However, some horsemen were not afraid to step up and some of the signatories may surprise:

The names of Donna Barton Brothers, Mark Casse, Gary Contessa, Bruce Headley, Mark Hennig, Graham Motion, Todd Pletcher, as well as owners, breeders and members of the mainstream media, appear as signatories, although not all the signatures have been officially verified as of this posting.

[HRI contacted Mr. Pletcher via text message who replied that until I informed him, he was unaware that the following petition existed. Organizers indicated subsequently that “most of the other” horsemen responses have been verified].

Interesting to note that no TOC board member has signed on, nor have we recognized any industry media, electronic or otherwise. [I might have missed a name or two, so please advise so that we can note it for the record].

THE PETITION READS: On Improving Thoroughbred racing through better surveillance and security along with tough penalties for those who violate the rules.

We the Bettors, Fans, Owners, Trainers, and other Industry Stakeholders sign this pledge advocating for better Thoroughbred horse welfare by enacting greater security measures to protect horses and the integrity of the Sport. We also want meaningful strengthening of rules providing appropriate consequences for all those that break the rules governing race day medication.

Here, the undersign, request that state horse racing boards, in the interest of fair and clean racing implement surveillance and security systems throughout the backstretch including stricter security for those entering and exiting such areas. This alone can ensure better horse health and deter improper conduct.

In addition governing bodies like the California Horse Race Board should create and enforce regulations in an equitable fashion based upon higher standards as those found in the Hong Kong Jockey Club, widely considered the worldwide leader in such matters.

On the eve of the Breeders’ Cup, we strongly urge the California Horse Racing Board to take the lead in putting such measures in place following North America's premier two days of racing.

In addition to signing, we're asking petitioners to add to the discussion board below with any suggestions that would benefit Thoroughbred horse racing by providing the safest and fairest conditions for the sport we love.

As noted in the privacy clause of this site, names and emails will only be used to show horse racing governing bodies that each signature is unique and has been provided by an individual interested in joining this most important cause.

Friends and Stakeholders of Thoroughbred Racing

Click the link to sign or look at the latest comments:

BETS ‘N PIECES: Congratulations to the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund for electing Richard Migliore to its Board of Directors as the first jockey so serve in that capacity. Migliore has viable ideas as to how retired racehorses can have successful second careers…

Speaking of jockeys, retired or not, it’s curious why there were no names on the petition since their very lives are dependent on animals that have no business on the racetrack except for the use of certain “therapeutic medications”…

Breeders’ Cup entries will be drawn later today, Friday’s card at 1PM PT and Saturday’s at 4PM which is, of course, 7PM Eastern. Why wasn’t the draw conducted three days ago, one week in advance of Day 1, allowing horsemen, media, and, most importantly, bettors, more time for study?

For most bettors-- Breeders’ Cup is not the Triple Crown, it has a smaller more sophisticated loyal racing audience that will be involved this weekend because they are the game’s most serious fans/bettors and, Eclipse champions notwithstanding, Breeders’ Cup is all about the betting.

In 1984, there were seven Breeders’ Cup events on one day. But Breeders’ Cup Ltd. needs wagering to remain viable and in the forefront as an industry- leading organization; hence it is now two days and 13 races--which is two less than last year.

Suggestion to Breeders’ Cup: All horsemen know if and when they are running and their preferences for particular races. If the weather issue is going to be trotted out, or horsemen want to wait until the last minute to see if a strong favorite is declared, then maintain a short also-eligible list of, say, three horses, determined by the BC Committee, much as they already deal with first and second race preferences.

Here’s how it works for the fans, and because handle are attendance are the only metrics the industry seems to want to consider are handle and attendance figures, consider this:

The recently concluded Keeneland meet was an aesthetic success by any measure, bad weather and all. Yet Sunday’s regurgitated headlines read “Handle and Attendance Down at Keeneland.”

And what makes Keeneland immune to racing’s national down-spiraling handle trends? It’s not all about field size.

Not one headline heralded the remarkable performance of Keeneland’s state-of-the-art dirt surface--the storyline at meet's beginning--under disparate conditions; its drying properties; consistency, minimal bias, even on days when certain styles had an edge. Invariably, the best horses won. Isn’t that all that matters to bettors, breeders, owners and trainers? Again, I digressed:

To do a thorough job—increase personal handle--handicappers require about two hours to research a conventional nine-race card. But that’s without limit fields in virtually every race; without automatic throw-outs; without a record number of pre-entrants, including scores of unfamiliar foreign entrants and without the best trainers and jockeys in the world competing against each other in the same race.

What’s the sense of easily recognizing the best horse in a turf race, e.g.; a worthy, post-time favorite, after it draws post 12? Certainly, post positions significantly affect race dynamics and bet-able odds.

Beating favorites has more to do with Breeders’ Cup than it does for the everyday value seeker: Players don’t get a chance to bet into pools this large in 13 straight races. Fans/bettors need more time.

We know that BC Vice President Peter Rotundo Jr. understands this and we hope he takes this suggestion to his colleagues at his pay grade and above.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

No Triumph This Time, Only Tragedy

MIAMI LAKES, October 17, 2014—Call it the Robin Williams syndrome, anything that properly reflects tragedy that goes beyond the pale.

Death almost always begets sadness but this was something more, perhaps a replication of how one feels when a special one passes. Even from a great distance, Juan Saez seemed to possess the kind or rare talent that belied his tender age.

Sometimes, death can be a blessing for those that suffer from disease, but I’ve always wondered if that was true. How would I feel about letting go if given the choice between doing just that or carrying on?

There was nothing about the death of the 17-year-old Saez that had any saving grace whatsoever: In death’s wake, shocking and profoundly sad are the only apt descriptions.

I never met the young man nor did I have the opportunity to see the teenage phenom in the flesh; only on horseback, on a closed-circuit monitor. His productivity demanded that you sought him out wherever he chose to hang his tack.

I finally caught up to his all too brief meteoric career while he was riding in Kentucky this Fall. His passing came with an ever-present reminder that jockeys are the least appreciated athletes of all.

It was like Billy Crystal said upon experiencing the loss of his good friend, Robin: “There are no words,” he said.

Position conscious--a trait horseplayers love most--and a strong finisher, his seat was a contradiction to his tender age. But it was the gift that only God can bestow that was most apparent when you watched him ride, and only the great ones have it:

Hands. How horses just loved running for this young man. Consider:

Career Record: (440) 89-79-63, yielding a win and in-the-money percentage of 20.2 and 52.5%, respectively. Earnings of $2,053,219 placed him 116th among 1,602 active jockeys worldwide. Remarkable stats for any rider that's just getting started.

Despite my unfamiliarity with the young man, I cannot believe that he is gone, cannot begin to imagine how his family and close friends must feel at this point in time.

Tributes have come from every corner of the sport, but what spoke loudest to me was a Rosie Napravnik tweet about the kind of person Saez was, how she always will remember his smile and the classy manner in which he conducted himself.

Our sincere condolences to family and friends. Rest in peace, Amen.


In light of declining attendance and handle figures at its current race meet, it’s easy to understand why Keeneland executives felt compelled to blame the wet Fall weather for the small fields this season, the cost of doing business when dirt tracks become wet dirt.

From the comfort of my living and simulcast venues, it was impossible not to be impressed with how their state-of-the-art dirt track reacted to the elements and how the races played out

Indeed, speed types had an edge on some programs, and the rail did not appear to be the place on other days.

At mid-week, the results were a good example of what we're saying here: Wednesday's wet-fast track had a good mix of speed and stamina winners. On Thursday’s sloppy oval, the opener for maidens was won by a first-time starter coming from last but the double completed in wire-to-wire fashion.

Even given such a small sample, the first six days of racing in Lexington, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a surface play as honestly as this one has to date.

As horseplayers have come to expect, it was a job very well done by the folks at Keeneland, a management group that has led the way in video presentation and understanding the complexities of takeout by giving bettors a fair shake, consistently building their handle through churn year over year.

Now, aided by space age technology in its creation and maintenance, Keeneland’s new dirt track should help business rebound from losses suffered to date.

Wet tracks are bad for business and always were. And there might have been some reticence for horsemen to ship in for racing on a brand new surface, taking a wait and see attitude. Alas, they had nothing to fear.


There is a lively thread on this site following Tom Jicha’s most recent contribution about how some racetrack executives get it, some don’t, while others are disengaged from its customer’s needs and wishes.

The comments of HRI regular Kyle were at once telling and on the mark: He talked about how Keeneland places its Pick 5 at the end of the day—“the takeout is reasonable at 19%,” he pointed out--and how a consolation eases the pain when picking four of five.

Kyle went on to suggest that by eliminating breakage, cutting takeout in the straight pools significantly and paring the wagering menu would help to promote churn instead of taking the position that jackpot payouts fix all.

“If I recall,” Kyle wrote, “Cary was an advocate of paring the racing menu [because he] was all about pool liquidity,” adding that one only needs to note the instability of straight and exacta pools at most tracks to put the problem in perspective.

Kyle posits that the takeout levels in the straight pool should be on the order of 15-10-10--highly unlikely to ever happen, however—and Kyle’s notion is right on point. The proportions are just right.

There isn’t a horseplayer I know who wouldn’t sign on the 15% dotted win line right now. Better, the 10% rate in the place and show pools is inspired. The place pool greatly helps a player remain liquid, thus increasing churn.

A 10% rake would all but revive a moribund show pool. Right now, its greatest utility occurs only when double-digit odds are present or there is a possibility that a “sure thing” would attract bridge jumpers and those guppies seeking a windfall when a 1-20 shot runs up the track.

A 10% takeout in the show pool could attract a new player, a “portfolio” bettor willing to make a significant wager for a value-laden return in a favorable-outcome scenario.

More liquidity = more churn = more customers = more overall interest. It’s only rocket science when you want it to be.

When will a major track think about utilizing a large portion of its marketing budget to card the first race of the day featuring good horses and extremely low takeout on straight--and possibly double--wagers only; no three-tiered or greater bets of any kind?

Why not attempt to create excitement to begin the day with a promotional “contest wager” that gets around state parimutuel regulations? The mix of favorable outcome with inflated payouts could pave the way for handle increases.

The high cost of wagering has caused serious bettors to walk away from the game. Maybe now tracks will begin to take the takeout issue a lot more seriously.

Written by John Pricci

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